THE BATTLE FOR IWO JIMA
By Todd Blomerth
On February 19, 1945, American fighting men invaded one of the Empire of Japan’s ‘Home Islands’ for the first time when the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions landed on the volcanic ash beaches of a tiny island called Iwo Jima. This eight square mile patch of desolation in the North Pacific became the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War.
This is an account of that battle.
Run-up to the Battle
By late 1944, it was painfully obvious to the Japanese that the American military juggernaut could not be prevented from striking the heart of Japan’s Empire. Initially hamstrung by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Allies’ “Germany First” policy, and the inevitable delay in ramping up production and enlistments, the United States unleashed its full military potential against the Japanese offensive. In May of 1942, the US dealt Japan its first setback by turning back a fleet aiming to launch an invasion of New Guinea in preparation for the conquest of Australia.. Then, that August, ill-equipped, and poorly supported Marines landed and held onto an obscure island called Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Bloody and protracted fighting over several months resulted in the first land defeat for Japan. Coupled with the brilliant American defeat of Japanese carrier forces at the Battle of Midway, the US (with the help of Australian and New Zealand) was turning the tide against the Japanese offensive wave.
The Allies adopted a two-pronged plan to roll back Japan’s gains in the Pacific. General Douglas MacArthur’s command in the western Pacific would by-pass and isolate as many fortified areas as possible by cutting their supply lines. This proved successful against Japanese bases in New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands and ultimately the Philippines. There were many bloody battles to be sure, but the ability to avoid massive Japanese bases such as Rabaul saved thousands of American lives.
Admiral Chester Nimitz’ area of command in the vast expanses of the eastern Pacific didn’t have as many options, as island stepping stones were small and far apart. “Island hopping,” or advancing from one chain of islands to another, was an unavoidable necessity. This meant having to make bloody amphibious assaults on island bastions like Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, Guam, and Saipan and Tinian in the Mariana Islands. American advances caused the Japanese military to begin heavily fortifying islands closer to the heart of the empire. One of the outposts deemed crucial to stopping further American advances was Iwo Jima.
With the Marianas in US hands in 1944, new American B-29 bombers now had bases from which to attack the Japanese homeland. A massive bombing campaign began to take the war to Japan’s cities and industrial centers.
Iwo Jima was important to the Japanese because it lay athwart the air route from the Marianas to Tokyo, and served both as an early warning site, and an interceptor location for fighter aircraft. To the Americans, Iwo Jima’s location only 650 nautical miles from Tokyo meant it was ideally located to recover disabled or damaged B-29s returning from bombing runs over Japan. It was also close enough to allow P-51 fighters to escort the B-29s all the way to Japan.
An invasion of Japan – something inconceivable only two years earlier – now loomed as a real threat to the Japanese high command. . The concept of surrender was abhorrent in Japanese society. This was one of the reasons why most Japanese soldiers, almost to the end of the war, fought to the death. And it was one of the many reasons Allied prisoners of war were seen as ‘cowards’ and horribly mistreated and tortured. The Japanese leadership felt that beyond the military threat, it meant the demise of the Japanese concept of “self.” The very idea of an invasion of the homeland, governed by a divine emperor, raised fears about the continuation of the Japanese as a race. The loss of their way of life and system of government, in their view, would result in cultural, if not physical genocide. And the Japanese military, which had controlled virtually all aspects of political life since the early 1930s, would not longer be in power
As the Allies closed in, the Japanese military made sure that its attackers would known the cost of an attempt to subjugate the empire.
On May 27, 1944, Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo selected General Tadamichi Kuribayashi to assume the defense of Iwo Jima. Kuribayashi was a decorated veteran and proved to be an expert at waging defensive warfare. He took his 5000 troops then on the island and set them to work honeycombing Iwo Jima with over 11 miles of tunnels and over 5000 caves and pillboxes. Kuribayashi was also a pragmatist. Shortly after he arrived, what was left of the Japanese naval air forces was destroyed in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in a disastrous rout the Americans called “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”. American submarines, surface ships and airpower had already decimated most of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Iwo Jima would receive more defenders and supplies until the Americans arrived, but Kuribayashi knew that he would get no further support once the invasion began. Kuribayashi realized that without help he and his men were ultimately doomed, so he aimed to make the American invaders pay as high a price as possible for victory.
Aerial View of Iwo Jima
Before World War II, Iwo Jima was a backwater island with a civilian population of around 1000, administered as a prefecture of the capital city of Tokyo. The islanders survived by fishing, growing sugar cane, or mining sulfur. There was no fresh water source on the island and those living there had to rely on rainwater cisterns. Rice and other supplies were brought in every month or so on inter-island freighters. There was one policeman, one Shinto shrine, and one primary school. Shaped like an ice cream cone, its one dominant physical feature was Mt. Suribachi at the southernmost tip of the island. This dormant volcano loomed 530 feet over the rest of the island.
At first glance, Iwo Jima appeared to be a difficult place to defend. But the Japanese had proved masters of island fighting. The bloodbaths at Tarawa and Peleliu had taught the Americans that.
Intelligence figures estimated that at best the Japanese held the ‘dry wasteland of volcanic ash that stinks of sulfur’ (as James Bradley described it in Flags of Our Fathers) with only 12,000 troops. Hardly a small number, but 70,000 Marines seemed to be more than enough to overcome the defenders. American intelligence estimates conservatively stated that one week was all the time needed to secure Iwo Jima and its three airfields. But those intelligence estimates were wrong, and badly so. The actual number of defenders had grown to 23,000 before the island was blockaded. By the time it ended, the Battle for Iwo Jima had raged for five weeks. And even after the invasion commanders proclaimed the island ‘secured’, on March 26th, hundreds of Japanese stragglers remained concealed in tunnels, occasionally ambushing US troops. The last holdouts would not surrender until 4 years after the end of World War II.
NEXT: D Day and Desperation